This week, as we celebrated Saint Valentine’s Day, approximately half of 190 million valentines were given to family members other than a husband or wife, usually to children. When valentine-exchange cards made in school activities are included, the number approaches 1 billion, and teachers receive the most valentines (US Greeting Card Association, 2010). So I have discovered that Valentine’s Day really is increasingly less about romantic love or martyrdom, but more about childhood friendship and affection.
So what happened this year? Personally, I was fortunate to receive flowers, cards, calls, and dinner. Nevertheless, I experienced this nagging, deeply felt discomfort. Valentine’s Day was upstaged this year by reports of a powerful betrayal. The press reported that over 600 children currently reside in the DC General Emergency Family Shelter, located between the local jail and the morgue. This created a buzz in the region……who really knew? I knew.
Working in collaboration with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project and the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School, NCCF’s staff and I have witnessed the unique opportunities provided by hundreds of college students and volunteers for the poorest children in the District to learn to play and read at the Shelter. And clearly, these efforts make an important difference for the unprecedented number of children who temporarily live in the former hospital with their parents.
Honestly, though, I really want to know: In this affluent region, how did we get here? It certainly is a good thing that we provide a few hours weekly to alleviate the stress children feel living in the Shelter, and indeed, inspiring children to read will have a positive benefits for their development going forward. But, I also know that young children are feeling oriented (why they cry or laugh so readily to express themselves) and literally absorb the stress of their parents’ lives well before their brains can process who is responsible for the lack of a home. And these children are normal children, primarily needing a consistent, stable home to go to every day, just
like all other children.
Yet even for the most resilient children, the negative effects may be self perpetuating–anxiety, school delay, self blame, shame, insecurity, irritability, depression, poor self esteem, post traumatic stress syndrome. When and if they can claim a home of their own, skilled intervention may be needed later for formerly homeless children to foster positive adjustment and a sense of normalcy. By all possible means, let’s help these parents provide the basic housing, stimulation, and family structure necessary for their children to thrive, without a daily trek through metal detectors
and by security officers, to be rewarded with a bed and two meals.
Valentine’s Day mostly is about childhood. As a larger and total community, we must do much, much better on Valentine’s Day next year, or shame on us!